Religious universe stretching over a period of time of about 4000 years, from before 3000 BCE until the 6th century CE in Ancient Egypt. This corresponds to the cultures centered around the river Nile in today's Egypt and northern Sudan.
Egyptian religion never constituted a single orientation, it was always number of cults and orientations. These cults and orientations shared a world view of fairly similar ideas. They focused on the stability of the universe, there was little belief in a continuous change.
Ancient Egyptian religion was to a great extent science, law, ethics and philosophy operating together inside the same framework. Contrary to modern religion, it was impossible to act outside the religion, as the religion was the foundation for ideas and acts of all human beings.
Towards the end of its period, Ancient Egyptian religion started to interact with religious beliefs from other parts of the Mediterranean Sea, and Egyptian religion saw several parallel and competing orientations pop up, as well as strong changes of the orthodox creed over time.
Before creation there was only sea. Re, the sun-god, came out of an egg or a flower, and from him other deities came. One deity became the earth, another the sky, a third the god of the dead etc. In certain regions, other gods were honored for the creation of cosmos, like Ptah was in Memphis, the sun in Heliopolis and Hermopolis, and Khnum on the island of Elephantine.
The main myth of Egypt was the one of Osiris, Isis and Horus, telling about the murder and rebirth of Osiris and the revenge by his son Horus. The story tells about the cycle of nature and its fertility, it tells about the unity of Egypt and it works as an explanation of the sacred kingship.
Concept of gods
Ancient Egyptian Religion is recognized for its many gods, as many as 80 have been counted. These gods represented different qualities and importance. Few Egyptians worshipped more than a small number of gods, but still recognized the qualities and importance of other gods.
There are also many examples of syncretistic gods, the merger of two independent god into one greater importance and power. Examples of such are Amon-Re, Re-Harakhty, Ptah-Sokar. In other cases could a god splinter into several, specialized forms, like was the case for Amon-em-Opet, Amon-Ka-Mutef etc. These specialized gods could have their own cults.
The complexity refers to the fact that Egyptian religion never really was "a religion", but rather a universe of religions that often interacted, inspired each other, copied each other and often allowed one cult to dominate so that smaller cults disappeared or changed. Never was a unified theology defined and imposed on the many cult centres. The closest we get is the "monotheism" of Akhenaten in the 14th century BCE, but this orientation proved to be short lived.
The highest divinity was the merger of Amon and Re in the 2nd millennium. Amon was described as a hidden god in control of the wind, while Re was the power of the sun.
The Egyptians thought of, and presented their gods with human qualities: They were born, some died (although most were reborn) and they often fought and quarreled. Moreover they were not considered as perfect. But gods were generally immortal and with superior powers compared to humans.
Gods were represented, and most likely thought of, in human form, animal form or in a animal-human form.
Gods were connected to natural phenomenons, or animals. This is part of the immanence of the gods in nature. Seldom were the representations of a god's qualities thought of as metaphorical. Hence any appearance of the animal is in itself carrying a religious importance, and often the worship of animals could be very direct. This belief survived through all stages of Ancient Egyptian religion. The respect for animals is central in Ancient Egyptian traditions.
Gods were often organized into groups, like triads (3), ogdoads (8) and enneads (9).
The only god that was not connected to any natural phenomenon, was Ptah. He was presented with transcendent qualities, but this was not widely accepted.
There was in the religion a strong connection between human problems, and natural phenomenon, as the divine was present in everything.
Cults, temples and shrines
Just like humans, gods needed food, drink and clothing. They also needed to be purified in order to sustain their strength. All this was provided for through the rituals. There were daily rituals, mainly administered by temple employees, and generally out of sight of the public. In a typical cult, the high priest would approach the sanctuary three times a day, have the doors to the shrine opened, have the statue(s) washed, perfumed, dressed in clothes and with necklaces. The doors would close again, and the high priest would leave.
Most regions had festivals, often on an annual basis. Some of these festivals were so famous and important that they attracted visitors from far away.
The major cults generally involved processions where the statue of the god was taken from its sanctuary, placed in a portable shrine, and toured. Sometimes, the statue was transported up or down the Nile.
The importance of the king
The state and its institutions were parts of the total divine order, Maat, or justice. The state and its institutions and the king (Pharaoh) were part of Maat, and at the same time they had to act according to the rules of the Maat. Likewise, all human beings were part of this system, and could not escape. And they had to respect the state and the state-sanctioned cult.
The strongest myth and cult of Egypt, the one of Osiris and Horus, works as a legitimization of the kingship.
The king was theoretically the highest priest in Egypt. But many of the rituals were performed in his place by local high priests, choirs of temple singers and lower ranks of priests.
The religion we learn about from the written sources and the grand monuments was a cult where the people generally could not participate, beyond being audience to public ceremonies. It is quite plausible that there might have been cults, beliefs and myths among the general Egyptian population that differed from the main, public religion.
Yet, we see that the framework must have been more or less the same. The basic theological and ritual elements must have been known to the entire population, and the great monuments must have exercised a strong impact of awe and respect on the average Egyptian. Likewise, there were numerous small shrines and holy places all over Egypt, developed to specific gods. These places were much visited by the average Egyptian.
One of the few examples we see of an arena for average Egyptians are the decorated and shrouded areas on the outer walls of the temple, referred to as "chapels of the hearing ear". Apparently this was a place where people could contact gods and present their needs and wishes.
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